The transfiguration icon and modern art
Christ takes with him His disciples Peter, James and John up a mountain, traditionally taken to be Mount Tabor. The Gospels then tell us that Christ’s face and garments shine with light, brighter than the sun. Moses and Elijah also appear before the disciples, talking with Jesus about His departure. Peter says it’s great to be here, and asks if they can set up some tents and hang around longer. Then a voice comes from heaven saying, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.” Moses and Elijah go away, and the Lord and the disciples descend Tabor.
So much can be said about this wonderful icon subject, but here we will limit ourselves to what insights it might offer us about art. This icon shows a world shot through with God’s light and glory, a world seen with not just with the eyes of the body but with the eye of the spirit. This is surely one of the great callings of art, to unveil and manifest in material form things that are hidden to most of us. One hymn of Transfiguration says:
You have preserved the bush unharmed, O Master, though it was united with fire, and you have shown to Moses Your flesh shining with divine brightness.1
In this icon, as in all, there is no shadow created by one material source of light. Icons show the world bathed in divine grace, and saints radiant with the indwelling Holy Spirit. Even the rocks flash out this light, and sometimes tree trunks are painted with gold lines. Although the garments follow the essential logic of drapery, they are not naturalistically rendered. They are rhythmical. The inanimate landscape, hills and trees, follow and emphasise the spiritual dynamic of the event. In the Garden of Gethsemane the rocks rise in prayer with Christ. In the Baptism icon the hills part like the seas of Jordan. In the Descent into Hades icon the rocks open like the jaws of death.
As we shall now discuss, this abstraction and manifestation of inner reality was the stated aim of the founding abstract artists of the twentieth century, foremost among them being Constantin Brancusi (1826-1957) , the founder of abstract sculpture, and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the founder of non-figurative abstract painting. Others could also be mentioned, such as Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) , all of whose work was inspired by his belief that there was a spiritual way of understanding nature that was deeper than scientific, empirical knowledge. Like many of his time, he was much influenced by the theosophical movement, an esoteric salad of eastern philosophies and religions.
The majority of our art historians books have, from embarrassment it seems, omitted the central role that spiritual quest played in early abstractionism. We may or may not like what these artists came up with, but it cannot be denied that what motivated them were consciously held spiritual aims. Novelty was not their object, but the embodiment of objective truths. It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that novelty seems to have became an end in itself, the fad for “Shock of the New” as the late critic Robert Hughes dubbed the trend.
When art loses its way, it loses it because it severs itself from its spiritual role, as a quest for God, a quest for a transfigured world, a quest for timeless truth in the midst of suffering. The word “art” means to join fitly together, and if we look throughout history the art of most cultures has aimed to join together the divine and the earthly realms, has had a religious function: Egyptian, Greek, African, Indian, Chinese, virtually all. Art without a spiritual aim is a recent and western phenomenon.
We tend now to think of abstraction as a departure from reality. But most early abstractionists understood their venture in the literal and more original meaning of the word abstract, which is to draw out. True abstraction in art is to draw out and make hidden reality manifest in physical form. In the academic realm a short summation of a long academic paper is called an abstract. Albert Einstein’s early work was as a patent clerk. His job was to summarize each submission in a sentence or two. it was this discipline which enabled him to arrive at the famous formula, E = mc2. This elegant formula is an abstract or summation of a complex reality. True abstract art does something similar: it makes clear something complex. As Constantin Brancusi said, “Simplicity is complexity resolved.”
Transfiguration, or metamorphosis in the Greek, means a change of form. What changed on Mount Tabor was not so much Christ but the disciples. Their eyes were opened to see a little of Christ’s divinity which had always been there. They saw just a little of Christ’s “divine beauty hidden beneath the flesh”2 as one hymn puts it.
But this event is not only about Christ’s transfiguration. It is also about the transfiguration of the whole material cosmos. It is significant that not only does Christ’s face shine with the uncreated light of His divinity, but also His garments. These garments are mere inanimate matter, and yet by association with Him who created them, they participate in His glory. The liturgical texts tells us that through Christ’s incarnation and transfiguration He has “shone as lightning with glory upon the mountain and has filled the world with light.”3
The Greek word for what we call nature is cosmos. This word’s literal meaning is adornment. So we can view Christ’s garments, His adornment, as the whole natural world wrapped around His divinity and thereby transfigured.
We are called to do the same, to be God-bearers ourselves and then through culture to fashion the world beautifully, integrate it into our life in the Body of Christ, and thereby transfigure it. The act of making an icon, as with any good work done in love for Christ, is akin to weaving a garment for the Body of Christ, the Church.
The garden city of the New Jerusalem we mentioned in the beginning is the ultimate outcome of this divine-human act of cultivation. Culture comes from the word cult, which means to worship. If a culture worships itself it will whither and die. If it transcends itself by directing its worship to God, it will live and flourish. The New Jerusalem is the ultimate artwork.
So paradise is the world seen aflame with the words of God, like Moses’ bush which burnt without being consumed. The Word of God speaks a word to create a cactus, and that cactus plant is thereafter sustained and directed towards its fulfilment by that indwelling word or logos.
And each thing is unique. Each person is unique. A person is holy to the degree that he or she has fulfilled their vocation, become themselves, become their unique logos. Each object and each animal has a role within this cosmic symphony.
This is what is meant in the Genesis account when Adam names the animals as they come to him. His naming was not arbitrary, but revealed each animal’s inner logos. Adam was acting as a prophet, discerning the word of the Lord within whatever he encountered.
All things are in unity because they come from the one Logos, but each thing is unique because it was brought into being by a unique word spoken by the one Logos. And each of these words is a poem of love from the Creator to His creation. Each logos is a note in a symphony of love composed by the Lover for His beloved.
The dynamism of art is perhaps born of this realization that each thing, each being, is on a journey to fulfil its vocation. Reality is not static. The whole of history is a journey in which God is nudging us from the desert towards the verdant New Jerusalem, and ultimately, from being merely human to being humans united to God, deified and transfigured human beings, shining like Christ with the grace of the Holy Spirit. As one hymn of the Transfiguration feast puts it:
You were transfigured, and have made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendour of Your own divinity.4
Even artists who have no formal religion can intuit and reveal to us these logoi, what the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the inscape of things. So great art does this very thing, even if unwittingly: it unveils the word of God which created but also sustains each thing.
The Impressionists were interested in the fleeting effects of created light upon their subjects. But they inadvertently suggested a world shot through with the light of God. Their works are akin to Byzantine mosaics, all aflame with colour and shining light.
Vincent van Gogh, a fervent Christian missionary in his early years, was consciously religious in his artistic aims. He sought to suggest holiness in the intensity of strong colour rather than through symbols:
I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolise, and which we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colourising.5
Unlike most of the Impressionists, the majority of the abstract artists of the early twentieth century were consciously religious in their aims. We shall here concentrate on the two founding fathers of the movement, Constantin Brancusi, the Rumanian founder of abstract sculpture, and Vassily Kandinsky, the Russian founder of abstract painting. [Brancusi in studio] [studio] [Bird in Space]Their stated aim was to discover and uncover the spiritual essence of their subject matter. Brancusi said:
They are imbeciles who call my work abstract; that which they call abstract is the most realist, because what is real is not the exterior form but the idea, the essence of things.
As we have seen, the word abstract means to draw out, and for these pioneers abstraction was a necessary language to draw out and crystallise the invisible but real essence of their chosen subjects.
Brancusi and Kandinsky were undoubtedly influenced by their backgrounds in the Orthodox Church, Constantin Brancusi particularly so. According to the biography of his friend V.G. Paleolog (Tineretea lui Brancusi or The Young Brancusi) Brancusi had ample opportunity to imbibe the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church since he spent many years as a church server, beginning from the age of eleven.6 He had in fact also received an arts grant from the trustees of the Church of Madonna Dudu in Craiova in 1899. Later while an art student in Bucharest aged 28 he was a chanter in an Orthodox parish, well respected for his pure tenor voice, and again from 1906 to 1908 he sang and served in the Romanian chapel in Paris, the same chapel in fact where he was buried in 1957. The hymns that he sang for the services are theology and mysticism in song and had an undoubted influence on his thinking. When his friend Petre Pandrea was once talking with Brancusi about his artistic achievements, the sculptor retorted with his characteristic humour that all he had done was to set up in Paris a branch office of his homeland’s Tismana Orthodox monastery.
Brancusi was quite eclectic in his reading, and read the works of Plato, Lao-Tzu and the Buddhist poet Milarepa. But the ideas he drew from these sources, from what we can tell from his aphorisms, were by and large those which accorded with the spiritual teaching of the Orthodox Church.
Viewed as isolated works of art, in secular art galleries, we can easily the forget the religious aim of Brancusi’s work. His famous endless column in Targu Jiu is in fact properly entitled “The Column of Endless Commemoration”, and was created by the sculptor to be like an eternally burning candle to commemorate those soldiers of Gorj who had fallen in war.
Although he himself was not a writer, Brancusi’s friends recorded many of his words as aphorisms. These clearly reveal the spiritual nature of his aims. Here are just some of them:
The vain ego of the person ought to be dissolved. The hidden principle – that is, the truth – can only be revealed if the ego is entirely eliminated.7
Look at things until you really see them. Those who sit close to God have already done so.8
If we compare the following words of St Maximus the Confessor with those of Brancusi we see little difference:
Maximus the Confessor:
Do not stop short of the outward appearance which visible things present to the senses, but seek with your intellect to contemplate their inner essences (logoi), seeing them as images of spiritual realities…
The artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter and be the tool that brings out its cosmic essence into an actual visible essence.
His emphasis on the inner essence of material things in no way meant that Brancusi despised matter. He saw reality as a union of matter and spirit, and this is evident in the love and care that he expended on making his sculptures, and the appropriate ways he treated his different mediums of wood, stone and bronze. In this sense his work was very incarnational. This is what struck the English sculptor Barbara Hepworth when she visited his studio. [Studio] She wrote that:
In Brancusi’s studio I encountered the miraculous feeling of eternity mixed with beloved stone and stone dust.
We turn now to Wassily Kandinsky, credited with being the first modern European to create entirely non-representational abstract painting, and as such is considered the founder of modern abstract painting. As well as being a practitioner, Kandinsky was also a theorist. His short book, “On the Spiritual in Art” was very influential, particularly in the English speaking world after it was translated in 1914.
Like Brancusi, he was raised an Orthodox Christian in Russia, and we know from his book “Looks on the Past” that he was deeply moved by the shimmering colours he met when visiting churches.
He felt he was moving into a painting, an idea central to his later abstract work. Also, just as Orthodox consider their icons to be hymns in colour, so Kandinsky saw his work as music, sometimes calling his more spontaneous works “improvisations” and his more developed paintings “compositions”. Some of his works it seems were directly inspired by icons, such as “Sketch with Horseman”, which is strongly akin to icons of St George and of Elijah taken into heaven.
Although it seems he was in the end more influenced by the esoteric teachings of Theosophy than Orthodoxy, for Kandinsky painting was a spiritual exercise with spiritual aims:
The artist must train not only his eye, but his soul.9
The world is full of resonances. It constitutes a cosmos of things exerting a spiritual action. Dead matter is a living spirit.10
A central aspect of his art theory was devotional fervor of spirit, which he called inner beauty, and spiritual desire, which he called inner necessity.
Probably the American artist closest to this spiritual impetus is Mark Rothko (1903-1970).
He was another Russian (Latvian), although of a devout Jewish family and not Christian. He was a complex man, whose life he felt was full of rejection and tragedy. His art naturally went through different phases, but common to all these was a search for deeper meaning in life and a preoccupation with death:
Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.11
As we have already mentioned, the ancient role of art has been the desire to join back together heaven and earth, divine and created, spirit and matter. Surely contemporary art would benefit from reviving this inspiring aim. Heaven would become the limit to its creativity.
1 The Feast of Transfiguration, Matins, Canticle Four of the canon.
2 Matins, the Feast of the Transfiguration, translation from “The Festal Menaion” tr. by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, PA, USA, 1998 (p. 478).
3 Small Vespers, ibid., p. 469.
4 The Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration, Aposticha of Great Vespers.
5 The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, ed. Mark Roskill (Fontana,1983), p. 286.
6 For this and much of the following information about Brancusi see: Peace and Rejoicing with Constantin Brancusi: Arguments for a Christian Dimension, Calinic Ragatu, trans. Virgil Stanciu (Editura Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, 2001).
7 Argatu p. 11
8 Argatu p. 24
9 Kandinsky W., On the Spiritual in Art
10 Kandinsky W., On the Question of Form.
11 “The Romantics Were Prompted” in Possibilities I, (New York) Winter 1947/48, p.84.